Medicine is largely defined by its active ingredients: the components of a substance intended to offer pharmacological benefits. Some medicines treat life-threatening diseases. Others provide a daily wellness boost. Some medicines are intoxicating, while others leave you completely sober. It all depends on who you are, what purpose you are taking medicine, and the symptoms you suffer from.
But a single factor divides the world of medicine: botanical medicine vs. synthetic medicine. This distinction separates the natural and the man-made.
In the world today, there are many types of synthetic drugs and herbal medicines. Walk into any grocery store or pharmacy and you’ll find aisles of white, twist-cap bottles donning names like “Acetaminophen” or “Omeprazole.” On the other end of the spectrum, visit online marketplaces like Kratom Spot to purchase botanicals like kratom capsules, often used as a daily wellness supplement.
But understanding these two classes of medicine is more complicated than meets the eye. According to a 2015 review, published by BMB Reports in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) database, herbal medicines “contain a lot of different compounds.” Conversely, synthetic medicines are often sold as single, isolated compounds. For example, acetaminophen—often sold under the brand name Tylenol—is the scientific name of a single compound, a synthetic medicine used to treat pain, inflammation, and more.
The differences between synthetic and botanical medicine are further complicated by other classifications of drugs. Controlled substances (compounds whose use is regulated by the government) are typically synthetic or botanical in origin. Some compounds have both a synthetic and botanical variant. For example, marijuana (a botanical) and synthetic marijuana (a synthetic) are both considered controlled substances in the United States.
An Overview of Botanical Medicines
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a botanical medicine “consists of vegetable materials, which may include plant materials, algae, macroscopic fungi, or combinations thereof.” They are often sold as tea, powders, capsules and tablets, topicals, tinctures, and more. For example, kratom is considered a botanical medicine, available in the form of:
Because botanical medicines often derive from plants, they are related to one another in vast networks of plant families: a group of plants with similar flowers, reproductive systems, evolutionary traits, and more. Believe it or not, kratom’s botanical family includes coffee!
Furthermore, botanical medicines also share rich, traditional histories. I hope you’re not sick of the kratom fun facts, because kratom has been used as a traditional medicine in Southeast Asia for generations, especially among the working class. Farmers today still chew kratom leaves ripe from the tree, gaining a boost of energy throughout the day.
Are There Botanical Controlled Substances?
Yes! The most popular botanical controlled substance is marijuana, listed as “marihuana” in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which determines drug schedules in the US. Other botanical controlled substances include psilocybin (the primary compound of magic mushrooms) and cathinone (derived from the Ethiopian Khat plant, a natural intoxicant).
An Overview of Synthetic Medicine
While botanical medicines include a variety of plant-based, natural, and perhaps homeopathic compounds, synthetic medicines are typically made in a laboratory. There are many types of synthetic drugs:
- Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines like Tylenol.
- Prescription medications like Vicodin, which are considered controlled substances.
- Non-medicinal narcotics like cocaine, which are also considered controlled substances.
In addition, many synthetic compounds are closely related to one another. Scientists can take an existing medicine and tweak the chemical compounds to create a new substance. However, two closely related compounds can illicit very different effects.
Are There Synthetic Controlled Substances?
Yes! Remember how there were only a handful of botanicals listed within the CSA? Well, synthetic drugs make up the vast majority of controlled substances. However, this does not mean synthetic drugs are “bad” for you. They often require no more than a prescription to obtain. Scientists also commonly discover compounds with intoxicating or dangerous side effects in laboratory settings, meaning they will need to be scheduled and controlled for distribution or discontinuance.
Botanical vs. Synthetic Medicine
Is botanical medicine better than synthetic medicine? Should one be taken instead of the other? These are questions without definitive answers. Instead, it’s best to focus on your medicinal needs. Think about:
- Your physiology, including age, weight, allergies, and so on
- What the medicine is for
- How the medicine is administered
- Potential side effects
- Other medicines you take regularly—Does this medicine interact with medications, for example?
- Dose strictness—Is missing a dose a BIG no-no?
How you respond to each may change which medicine is right for you. Furthermore, there are many misconceptions about the botanical medicine vs. synthetic medicine debate. The first misconception: synthetic chemicals are more toxic. This is sometimes the case, but not always. Toxicity is found in both botanical and synthetic compounds.
In addition, people may assume botanicals are better for you. Why? Because they’re natural, of course! But just because a substance is natural does NOT mean it is automatically safe. For example, there are a variety of plants that can and will kill you. The same can be said about synthetic compounds. Sometimes, laboratories create compounds with serious adverse effects in humans, too.
Another misconception about the synthetic-botanical debate is this: synthetic copies of natural chemicals are less potent or less effective. This is not inherently true. We should approach ALL medicines on a case-by-case basis, no matter where they originate from. Botanicals are not “better” than synthetics or vice versa.
Synthetic or Botanical Medicine: Which is Right for You?
Why not both!
Botanical medicines offer a variety of mild-to-strong formulations that help a variety of ailments or provide general wellness. Synthetic medicines have designed uses, targeting specific ailments with science.
One one hand, rub aloe vera on a sunburn, take turmeric capsules for a boost in antioxidants, and brew kratom tea to relax after a long day! On the other hand, take acetaminophen for a fever, purchase common OTC medications for aches and pain, and use man-made lotions designed to hydrate your skin! Botanical and synthetic medicines both have their pros and cons. However, with proper medical guidance, you can get the best of both worlds.